Home Politics & Cannabis Policy NJ State Senate President Supports Legalization, Not Decriminalization

NJ State Senate President Supports Legalization, Not Decriminalization

Sweeney Opposes Decriminalization
NJ Senate President Steve Sweeney makes a remark at the 119th Annual Labor Day Observance at Collingswood on Aug. 30, 2013. To help students afford college, NJ Senate President Steve Sweeney wants a commission to evaluate a number of options, including a "Pay Forward, Pay Back." ( File photo / AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer )

While Governor Murphy remains steadfast regarding plans for cannabis legalization for adult-use in New Jersey, other lawmakers have different thoughts for dealing with the legality of the plant.  Some lawmakers have introduced bills with variations of a legal cannabis economy, while another bill focuses specifically on statewide decriminalization.  Despite these variations, Murphy maintains support on the issue of legalization from his most important allies.

Regarding decriminalization, Sweeney (D)told NJ Advance Media, “I really don’t have an interest in it. I don’t see it moving forward at this time. You’re basically legalizing something that’s not legal now. If you’re gonna do it, do it right. Regulate it and manage it properly.”

Opponents of decriminalization that favor full legalization say that this approach basically legalizes a plant that has been illegal for decades, but does not set up a controlled or regulated economy, encouraging the black market to continue to thrive in the state. Under the proposed decriminalization bill, amounts under 10 grams would be allowable, with larger amounts subject to fines or jail time.

Last month, the legislative black caucus held a hearing on cannabis with many staunch opponents to legalization giving testimony during the meeting.  The caucus supports the decriminalization bill and is chaired by the bill’s co-sponsor, Senator Ronald Rice (D).

Until his recent bill’s introduction, Senator Rice has been a consistent opponent of any effort to decriminalize marijuana. Even now, he is deeply concerned about legalizing cannabis. The New York Times reported Rice saying, “It’s always been said the issue is not money, the issue is social justice. But, it’s being sold on the backs of black folk and brown people. It’s clear there is big, big money pushing special interests to sell this to our communities.”

State Senator Robert Singer (R), one of the decriminalization bill’s other co-sponsors, is not convinced that the voters actually want legalization. “If they’re so assured this is a positive thing for the state of New Jersey, if they’re so assured that people want to do it, let’s put it on the ballot.”

However, Sweeney has concerns about the referendum approach versus the legislative approach. “The only problem with a referendum is that if you make mistakes and need to make changes, the only way you can make changes is through a referendum,” Sweeney said. “It makes it too rigid.”

A recent poll by Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute found that over 75% of New Jersey residents support using the revenue from legalized cannabis on tax relief throughout the state, with 60% strongly supportive and 16% somewhat supportive of the idea. Despite this, towns throughout New Jersey have taken some proactive measures to ban cannabis, while others have said they welcome it in their local economies.

Earlier this year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded an Obama-era ruling taking a hands-off approach towards enforcement of cannabis in legal states from the feds. Sweeney weighed in then and continues to stand by his feelings on cannabis legalization. “We will continue to work toward legalization and will resist any attempts by Attorney General Sessions or the Trump Administration to impose its will on the states and to stop the progress that has been made to reform the prohibition-type mentality that criminalizes the use of marijuana,” Sweeney said, as reported by Politico earlier this year.

It is estimated that over $300 million in revenue will be generated through the legal cannabis market in New Jersey. There are also many studies supporting reduced opioid usage, reduced alcohol consumption and lesser rates of incarceration as just some of the benefits of legalizing cannabis for adult-use.

Later today Governor Murphy will share the state’s budget details and it is expected that cannabis will be a major part of his plans. Meanwhile, there are at least 14 state senators who still oppose legal, adult-use of cannabis in New Jersey.

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